Tourists who leave it late win race for bargain trips to Olympics

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The Independent Travel

When it was announced that the Olympic Games was to return to Athens, there were many in the city and the international travel industry who assumed the handing over of large amounts of gold would not be confined to the podium in the Olympic stadium.

But with just three days to go until Friday's opening ceremony, the hoped-for financial extravaganza appears to be a fading dream. The travel industry is now hoping that heavy discounting and a last-minute surge of interest will prevent the event from becoming an economic disaster.

Ticket sales for events are down by between 20 and 30 per cent on expectations in the United Kingdom - a pattern being repeated across Europe and, most worryingly, in Greece itself - and it is estimated that 3 million of the original 5.3 million tickets for the Games have still to be sold.

The shortfall in demand for many of the events is having a knock-on effect for those selling flights, accommodation and packages. Up to 6,000 hotel rooms in Athens are still up for grabs despite the pre-Games hype that they were sold out two years in advance.

While some mid-range hotels were initially charging £600 a night for the Games period, their prices now are nearer £50 a night. Flights that were once priced at more than £500 are trading on the internet for as little as £162. British Airways is offering flights that arrive in time for the opening ceremony for just £216.

While an excess of supply over demand and excessive pricing is by no means unique to the 2004 hosts, the problem is particularly severe this time.

According to Simon Gillespie of Sportsworld, the official British Olympic ticket agent, Athens has been a particularly difficult event for the marketing professionals.

He said: "There was a lot of concern that the stadiums wouldn't be ready. The Greeks didn't put out a positive message when they could have done. They've kept quiet and there's been the attitude of, 'We'll show them and have it ready in time'," he said.

But for all the plaudits for the Panathinaiko Stadium and state-of-the art facilities, the Greeks are facing the embarrassment of empty seats being beamed across the world's television screens. To counter this, the Greek government plans to give the seats to schoolchildren and devise other public projects to plug the gaps in the crowds.

It is estimated that 5,000 Britons have bought tickets through Sportsworld, although their numbers could be doubled by those buying tickets directly through the International Olympic Committee website. These people are more likely to fly no-frills airlines and stay in independent accommodation.

Visitor numbers to Greece look set to fall for the fourth successive year - down 19 per cent on last year. The package operator Ionian Island Holidays is now offering two-for-the-price-of-one deals and Sunvil is slashing 10 per cent off its brochure prices.

One important reason for the downturn in the number of British visitors is the strength of the euro, which is trading at €1.5 to £1. This has led to a general malaise in Mediterranean tourism, with people choosing Eastern Europe, Turkey and the United States over eurozone countries. The big winners have been Croatia, where visitors are up 100 per cent, and Bulgaria, up by 70 per cent.

There are also concerns over the level of support in Greece for the Paralympic Games, which follow on directly from the able-bodied event and which will receive television coverage in Britain.

But it is not all doom and gloom for Greece. Sean Tipton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, believes that, in the long term, the cleaned-up, smog-free Athens will prove a more attractive destination. He is also confident that discounting will help shift unsold capacity before the Games.

He said: "There's only a certain amount people are prepared to spend. No matter how much you love the occasion, there are limits on what you can charge People are not mugs."

CUT-PRICE DEALS

FLIGHTS

Alitalia: Heathrow to Athens, departing 13 August, via Rome, £162.40. Returns 18 August. Available lastminute.com.
British Airways: Heathrow Athens, direct, departing 13 August, £216. Returns 18 August. Available lastminute.com.

ACCOMMODATION

One night aboard the Queen Mary 2, moored off Piraeus, for as little as £340 a night for the duration of the Games. Includes king-size bed, air conditioning and own slippers. More expensive suites still available at £1,550 a night include butler service and pre-dinner canapés. Some suites cut by up to 50 per cent.

Four-star Royal Olympic Hotel, affords views of the Temple of Zeus in central Athens. Double rooms in the run-up to the opening ceremony costing £99 will double in price when the games get under way.

Three-star Athenia in the coastal area of Marathon. One hour from Olympic Stadium by car. Rooms from £50 per night.

EVENT TICKETS

Available from official website (www.tickets.athens2004)

Closing Ceremony 29 August: £330.
Equestrianism Qualifying rounds at the Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre: £7-£52.
Rowing Men's Fours semi-finals at the Schinias Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Centre. 18 August: £7-14.
Women's Beach Volleyball gold-medal match, 24 August: £60

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